We all know the broad details of World War II and how it ended, who defeated who, the approximate number of casualties, and all those other things. We don’t know the small stories that happened within the war, stories that were not big enough for everyone to know but definitely remarkable enough to be told. One of those was how James Ward received his Victoria Cross award that time when he climbed onto the wing of their burning plane mid-flight.

James’ Flight Plight

James from New Zealand was 22 years old, and WWII had been going for a year. One fine morning (or so they thought), James(A flying Sergeant) was returning from a night bombing mission on Munster Germany along with his crew. Their Vickers Wellington heavy bomber was suddenly attacked by a German Bf 110 Nightfighter as they were flying over the Zuider Zee at 13,000 feet. Their rear gunner was wounded, but he managed to take down their assailant. However, their plane was hit too. The damage started a fire that broke out on their starboard engine onto the airframe and the hydraulic system. Adding the wind and the petrol that began leaking from a split fuel line, the fire was threatening to spread to their plane’s entire wing.

After putting on their chutes, the crew desperately started putting out the fire. The crew bore a hole in the fuselage so they could get closer. They tried with the fire extinguisher and even with the coffee from their flasks, but the fire kept spreading. They were warned that they might need to jump and abandon the aircraft. That would mean capture and the rest of the war as a POW

Not-So-Brilliant Idea

Refusing to give up, Sergeant James Ward thought he might be able to smother the fire using an engine cover that they were using as a cushion prior. Without much time to argue, his crew agreed and tied him to the aircraft using rope from an inflatable raft. It didn’t do much in assuring James’ safety, of course, but that’s all they had that scary moment.

Sergeant James Allan Ward of No. 75 (New Zealand) Squadron RAF, standing in the cockpit of his Vickers Wellington Mark IC, L7818 ‘AA-V’, at Feltwell, Norfolk. James was the first New Zealander to win the Victoria Cross during the Second World War.

He crawled through the narrow astro-hatch on the top of the canopy used for celestial navigation with the engine cover on the one hand and using the other to hold on for his dear life. He punched or kicked holes in the fabric covering the burning wing to maintain a grip, all while fighting winds over 140 mph. Soon he was able to get near the fiercely burning engine. With only one free hand, he smothered the fire with the fabric cover. He then tried to push the cover into the hole and seal the leaking fuel where the fire started. The strong wind kept blowing the engine cover away, and James kept trying to put it back. He managed to get it stuffed into the opening but the wind over the wing, soon ripped it out again and it was lost in their slipstream.

Victoria Cross Worthy

Victoria Cross. Arghya1999CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

James then made an equally-dangerous trip back into the bomber.  They had managed to extinguish the fire, and the team headed back home. The fire blazed again as they were near their camp but fortunately burned out quickly, and they made a safe landing.  The Wellington was actually a very well-built bomber, while having a fabric skin, its geodesic form of construction was all metal, but the damage to the plane was so extensive that it was written off as a total loss.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill personally summoned James to hand him the Victoria Cross award.

Ward was the first New Zealander in WWII to win Great Brittain’s highest decoration for valor.  His mission over Munster was on July-7-8th in 1941, and the Victoria Cross was awarded to him on August 5th.   By then Flying Sergeant Ward was a command pilot of a Wellington with his own crew.  On his tenth mission, his plane was badly shot up again and he made a forced landing back in England.  Then on September 15th, his eleventh mission, his squadron attacked Hamburg. On this raid, his ship was set on fire by flak once again.  Two of the crew managed to bail out, but Ward and three others perished in the flames.  The Germans recovered their bodies and buried them with military honors in Ohlsdorf cemetery in Hamburg.